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Friday, June 05, 2009

Incident at ACM shows the need for proselytizers to respect public areas and common secular space

My unpublished letter to the Straits Times.

Incident at ACM shows the need for proselytizers to respect public areas and common secular space

I applaud Second Minister for Finance and Transport Lim Hwee Hua's call to ensure secular space for all. An unpleasant incident at the Asian Civilisations Museum further illustrates how this common space has come under stress in recent years.

On Thursday, I attended a fascinating lecture, "Why Buddhism and Not Hinduism? Reexamining the Successful Transmission of Buddhism to China", by Dr Tansen Sen, distinguished associate professor of Asian history and religions, organised by Asian Civilisations Museum and Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the Institute of South East Asian Studies, of which Dr Sen heads. The talk focused on the historic cultural and economic exchange between China and India and the possible reasons why Buddhism but not Hinduism spread from India to China. The talk was attended by over 300 people, including not only members of the public, but also diplomats, distinguished scholars of history and culture as well as at least one member of parliament.

During the Q&A session, a gentleman surprised everyone by launching a monologue irrelevant to the topic. He declared to the audience that he was initially a Buddhist, but had found god, and then advised the audience to read the bible and a book entitled "From Buddhism to Jesus Christ". Despite the urging of the organizers and the growing commotions of the audience, he continued, calling on the audience to consider "how does one go to heaven after death" and "that is the question everyone must ask". It was only at this point that members of the audience and the organizers successfully interrupted him and brought all back to the rightful topic.

This incident, together with the recent Aware debacle, are examples of how the common secular space we have in this small country have been intruded. Many of us have also experienced aggressive proselytizers who confront and stalk us in public areas, and have noticed the worrying evangelizing that goes on in schools and tertiary instituions. I urge religious leaders to call upon their followers to exercise restraint and consideration for others who prefer to treat religion as a private matter and go about their daily lives unmolested.

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